The Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit is reporting that food insecurity is getting worse in the area and is joining the Ontario Dietitians in Public Health (ODPH) in calling for higher minimum wages and social assistance.
The public health unit found that food is becoming more unaffordable across the municipality after completing the annual survey of grocery stores that monitors the affordability of food called the Nutritious Food Basket (NFB).
CK Public Health said the most recent data shows that almost 20 per cent of households in Chatham-Kent don't have enough money to buy nutritious food. The one in five households are either worried about running out of food and/or had limited food selection, compromised the quality and/or quantity of food, missed meals, reduced food intake, or at the extreme end, went a day or more without food, according to the local health unit. That number grows to almost seventy per cent of households on social assistance being food insecure.
In June 2022, CK Public Health analyzed the cost of eating a nutritious diet based on the Canada Food Guide and said families and individuals living on low incomes in Chatham-Kent face "significant financial pressures" with little, if any, money left over to cover other monthly expenses after paying for food and rent.
Public health unit officials reported that in 2022, the cost of feeding a family of four in Chatham-Kent was $1050.36 per month or $242.58 per week, a jump of approximately $56 a week since 2015. The data was collected from six different grocery stores in both urban and rural settings, according to the public health unit.
A report by the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit shows that a family of four with median income spends approximately 11 per cent of their after tax income on food, compared to those on Ontario Works where a single person spends 44 per cent and a family of four spends 38 per cent of their income on food.
"[Household Food Insecurity (HFI)] is rooted in poverty: inadequate and insecure income, and material deprivation. HFI is a serious public health issue nationally, provincially, and specifically in the Chatham-Kent region, and has been amplified by the economic downturn due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," stated the report.
CK Public Health said that food insecurity worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized the need for increased financial support for low-income households.
CK public health officials added that food insecurity significantly impacts mental and physical health and well-being because people living in food insecure households are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic diseases, including mental health disorders, non-communicable diseases, and infections, which lead to increased public health care spending.
They also noted that research suggests emergency food programs are important community services, but are not an effective long-term solution to food insecurity because they do not address the root cause.
"An income-based response can work to effectively resolve food insecurity and improve health. For example, federal income supports for older adults, such as the Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, have been shown to decrease food insecurity rates by 50 per cent for those over 65 years of age," said local public health officials.
The Ontario Dietitians in Public Health are also calling for a reduction of income tax rates for the lowest income households.
ODPH said about 2.34 million Ontarians experienced food insecurity in 2021 and the situation has "undoubtedly worsened" in 2022 with an extraordinary rate of food inflation. The dietitians noted that in Ontario, the price of food purchased from stores in September 2022 was 11.5 per cent higher than in September 2021, rising at a rate not seen since the early 1980s.
"HFI is an urgent public health, human rights, and social justice problem that, if not addressed, will continue to have serious consequences to Ontario’s economic progress as well as the health and well being of citizens. We strongly urge the Ontario government to adopt policies as outlined in Provincial Policy Levers to Reduce Household Food Insecurity proven to effectively reduce HFI," read a letter addressed to the provincial government in October.
The ODPH also said health consequences of food insecurity are a large burden on the province’s health care system because not being able to afford food has "serious adverse effects" on people’s physical and mental health and the ability to lead productive lives.
The dietitians emphasized that Ontarians living with food insecurity are at greater risk for numerous chronic conditions, including mental health disorders, non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and infections.
According to the ODPH, people who have chronic conditions and are food insecure are more likely to have negative disease outcomes, be hospitalized, or die prematurely, adding that policies that effectively reduce food insecurity could offset considerable public health care expenditures in Ontario.
"In a province as wealthy as Ontario, it is unacceptable and unjust that Ontario Works rates are not based on the actual costs of living, are not indexed to inflation, and do not protect vulnerable citizens from living in dire situations without the money they need to buy food," the ODPH wrote in the letter. "While Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates have increased by five per cent and are now indexed to inflation, this is no where near enough to protect ODSP recipients from food insecurity."
The ODPH added that those who have jobs are not immune from food insecurity. The dietitians said in 2021, 48.2 per cent of food insecure households in Ontario reported wages, salaries, or self-employment as their main source of income, adding the "high prevalence" of food insecurity among those in the workforce reflects "precarious and low-paying jobs" and multi-person households with a single income earner.
They also said food charity is not a solution to the problem of food insecurity because food banks may provide temporary food relief, but do not address the persistent problem of inadequate income.
"Only about one-quarter of households experiencing food insecurity go to food banks and for those who do use them, food insecurity does not go away," said ODPH.